Reconciliation As a Process

Father and sonFor most parents estranged from one or more adult children, reconciliation is the brass ring. It’s something you dream of attaining one day. But have you ever thought about what happens next?

Usually when you win a prize, you take it home and put it on a shelf, or maybe over the fireplace, where you can gaze at it every day from your easy chair. You won it fair and square, and no one can take it from you.

Reconciliation with an estranged adult child isn’t that kind of prize. You don’t get to win it once and then sit back and enjoy it. It’s more like a prize you bring home that you have to chase around the house.

It may stay put for a day or two, but it keeps disappearing and you have to go looking for it again. It’s a moving prize, at least for a while.

The “moving target” of reconciliation becomes the “moving prize” that’s this month’s subject.

A Process, Not an Event

Happily, I often hear from parents who succeed in breaking through the estrangement barrier with an adult child.

While congratulations are always in order when that happens, I also caution these reconnected parents not to let their guard down quite yet.

After reconciliation you still need to be consistent in maintaining positive changes, because consistency fosters trust.

Your child’s ability to trust you will continue to play a central role in the relationship once you’ve re-established contact.

Don’t be accused of the old bait-and-switch: Dangling new behaviors out there just long enough to get them to come back, and then dropping those behaviors entirely.

Stay the course, even after you cross the finish line. Because the finish line probably isn’t where you think it is.

Testing, Testing…

Be aware of the presence of testing. Your child will test your commitment to any new behavior or attitude.

Often taking the form of hurtful behavior, testing doesn’t stop with reconciliation. In fact, reconciliation might intensify the testing process.

Testing is usually unconscious and shouldn’t be treated as something your child is doing to hurt you.

Most poor behavior between human beings is actually intended as self-protection, even though it can feel punitive on the receiving end (and very, very personal).

Keep these ideas in mind about testing:

  • Testing is inevitable: Expect it to happen, and be prepared.
  • It’s a phase that will eventually come to an end.
  • You pass a test by not reacting negatively to it.

Reconciliation Ambivalence

In addition to consistency on your part and testing on theirs, there’s another factor that can come into play during reconciliation, and that is ambivalence.

You yourself might be slightly to very ambivalent about getting close to your child again, thus opening yourself to more rejection.

Your child too may have substantial ambivalence about reconciling.

Many parents report that after a breakthrough in which their child was responsive and warm and things seemed spectacular, suddenly there’s radio silence again. It’s painful and confusing.

It happens often enough, however, that it’s probably part of the reconciliation process. There’s rarely a smooth, linear path from “estranged” to “reconciled.” Be prepared.

Expect your child to be ambivalent even after a breakthrough that feels good to both of you.

Expect your child to push you away again.

Remain calm and non-reactive. Be great-full in the face of non-great behavior. Be that superhuman, patient figure, The Parent.

This isn’t something you’ll feel like doing in the moment. Not when you’re hurting and resenting your child for ruining a perfectly good reconciliation.

Instead of counting on yourself to be big when you feel small…

  • Think ahead about what you’ll do if you’re rejected again after a breakthrough.
  • Plan to be patient. (If you don’t feel patient when the time comes, that’s okay. But plan to behave as if you were patient.)
  • Don’t act out of fear, anger, or need. When you feel those things, avoid taking any action.
  • Don’t personalize testing or ambivalence. Meet them with patience and focus on consistency.

You don’t have to walk on eggshells, but you will likely have to tolerate a few broken eggs, and deal with the clean-up.

Plan to enjoy the peaks and tolerate the valleys of the reconciliation process for years, rather than weeks.

From what I hear, reconciled parents still feel like their work is ongoing, but they appreciate the rewards of renewed connection with their adult children and grandchildren.

For much more on navigating relationships with estranged adult children, see my book, Reconnecting With Your Estranged Adult Child.

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